Gearing up for Spring

I guess it’s time for me to switch to gearing up for Spring Training. Pitchers and Catchers report tomorrow, though like many of the “Sidewalk Crew” are reporting, various position players have already begun their workouts at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa.

The Yankees have invited 84 guys (including their 40-man roster) to Spring Training this year. This fact makes me think of a few times in my life when I’ve been on both sides of that coin (of course, never as a Spring Training invitee, but nonetheless) — the newbie and the veteran. I think it’s more fun for the veterans because they know what to expect, they’ve been through the process, and they can encourage/mentor some of the young guys without the pressure of trying to make the team (with the minor exception of the starting catcher’s match we seem to have developing).

But I would think being the newbie has its perks as well, especially if they’ve yet to make their major league debut. You can take advantage of the veteran’s knowledge of the game and team and their fluidity on the field, make connections with some of the guys you perhaps idolized growing up, and get the chance to really cement your identity both as a player and as a potential teammate. The guys who are coming into Spring Training as established contract players, but new to the team, get a chance to prove themselves worthy of the pinstripes and to reinvent themselves, in a sense.

As fans, we get the chance to watch the hopefuls and perhaps see the next great generation of Yankees take the field for a game or two with our current great Yankees. Growing up in Florida, we saw a ton of minor league games. But now, I wish I’d saved the programs from those days to see if we saw any of today’s stars or even Cooperstown inductees. Players get traded all the time; so being drafted by and playing with the Dunedin Blue Jays in the minor leagues, a player could then end up with the Houston Astros, San Diego Padres, or just maybe the New York Yankees before his career is over. I guess I’ll never know for sure…

And I suppose that’s what I like most about Spring Training — keeping an eye out for the ones that (like I said yesterday) marry the statistical talent with the natural instinct. I have my eye on a crop of younger players currently on Major League rosters that I think can possibly be Cooperstown material (staying clean and healthy is always critical), and for the next 15 years or so, I look forward to watching them develop into the baseball player I know they can be and just maybe a future Yankee great or two.

Go Yankees!

The intangibles

I was watching a special on a cable sports channel about great baseball players, awaiting the results of where our current roster of great ones land on the list. The ultimate judge was based solely on statistics. Now, there has been much on the rise with the statistics and Sabremetrics to judge the better players — the old “Moneyball” approach, made popular by the 2011 Brad Pitt movie of the same name.

The results of the sports show were disappointing to say the least as to where they ranked some Yankee greats because the approach completely factored out so many of the important and intangible parts of the sport — mainly heart, instinct, and overall team spirit. So it got me thinking about that movie and another recent baseball movie Trouble with the Curve. Both movies displayed the old-school instinct and the new-school metrics and how often they’re at odds with each other.

There was a scene in Moneyball where Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane (yes, Oakland’s current GM) has relied solely on statistics to build a team that is starting to win some of their games, but the attitudes of some of the players are disturb the team unity, which translates to loss on the field. So Beane has had it and fires the troublemaker, installing a player who fit the team better as a whole. He is at odds with his statistician, but the result is more wins. What Sabremetrics fails to take into account is the player’s character and impact he has on team morale.

In Trouble with the Curve, old-school scout (played by gruff and grumpy Clint Eastwood) relies on what he knows is going to work — his own instinct. In one part of the movie, he arranges for a struggling minor league prospect (cameo here: Clint’s own son Scott) to have his family come visit him, which in turn boosts his on-field play and puts him back on the rising path of the next generation of great players for the Braves (the team this movie centers around). In another scene, Clint and his daughter (played by Amy Adams) recognize that although the hot-shot kid everyone’s buzzing about can hit everything from a high school player’s pitch with a metal bat, his swing isn’t clean enough for the wooden bats and high speeds of the Majors. The movie’s antagonist fights Clint’s instincts at every turn, relying instead on what the computer is telling him about performance and predictions; it is insinuated that the guy hasn’t seen a real game in years.

The conclusion of both movies isn’t that we need to discount either system entirely but rather find a happy medium. At the end of the Curve, it is Amy Adams’ character that brings the marriage of the two to discover an amazing young pitcher. And nearly a decade after the Moneyball system was implemented, the A’s went on to win their division last year, a team now a decent threat in what is becoming a tough division in the league; they face the Angels, the Rangers, the reorganizing Mariners, and newly AL Astros this year. A product of the marriage of Moneyball and instinct is Nick Swisher. The Indians are lucky to have him this year.

And that’s the problem I guess I mainly have with just using one system — you miss the guys who will play through bone bruises, driving rain or snow, bleeding socks, broken helmets, lack of sleep, and booing opposing crowds all with a great attitude and passion for the game they’ve loved and played for 25 years of their life.

Go Yankees!

Positivity is hard to find

As I predicted yesterday, the Yankees referred to Babe Ruth today (via his retired plaque and number at Tampa’s Monument Park). With the winter storm hitting the Northeast this weekend, I’m sure many of the teams are glad to be in warmer, sunnier climates for this February.

I was reading up on baseball news yesterday and this morning, and so much of it isn’t worth talking about as much as it gets talked about. I started this blog with the full intent remaining positive and sharing with whomever may stumble across it why it’s the greatest sport in the world and why the Yankees are the great team of all time. But so much of the news, especially concerning the 2013 Yankees is so negative — their aging lineup and bullpen, possible PED usage once again, nasty contract and trade rumors, bad managing (or is it the front office?)… the list just goes on.

I skimmed through four baseball magazines in the store last night. These weren’t your ordinary general sports pages, but the ones specifically created just to cover baseball. According to their predictions, the 2013 Yankees will wind up either 1st in the AL East (but lose to Detroit in the playoffs), 2nd in the AL East and miss the Wild Card slot, or last in the AL East. And every one of the magazines had some snarky article about the “aging” of the Yankees and even some not nice things to say about the guys on the prospect list. I had to walk away from the newsstand and quickly; it was making me angry.

Look, I get fairness in journalism (it was my first major in college). But this was coming off as just more anti-Yankee hatred once again. Perhaps, Bostonians and other lesser rivals would be proud of these “journalists”. I guess I’m just tired of the bias against one team becoming a hatred of the team, its players, its coaches, its fans, and its city. Even the players don’t really get into this rivalry because they realize at the end of the day, it’s still a business, and they as commodities can be traded to a “rival” team if the price is right.

BOSvNYY
Baseball’s most famous rivals

Babe Ruth’s trade may have started the Boston-New York rivalry, but long-term fans of both teams remember Wade Boggs, Roger Clemens, Johnny Damon, Rickey Henderson, Bob Melvin, Bill Wight, and (current Yankee pitcher) David Aardsma are just a handful of players who have played for both teams at some point in their careers.

I think of the movie Fever Pitch often when I think of this rivalry. There is a scene towards the end of the movie when Jimmy Fallon’s character has chosen the Red Sox over his girlfriend (played by Drew Barrymore), the Red Sox have lost horribly once again, and Jimmy and his friends are commiserating at a nearby bar over the Sox loss. They look over and see three Sox players having dinner and just hanging out like friends. At first, Jimmy’s friends are offended that the ball players aren’t as miserable as the fans are about their loss, but that’s when it hits Jimmy. The players know it’s just one game out of 162. They still have to get up the next morning and play another game against another team, and life moves on because it has to. Rivalry for the fans or not, they have a job to do, whether they play the Yankees or the Royals or the Astros.

I suppose I will offend some Yankee fans for my Fever Pitch reference, but what I like about the movie is what I like about baseball. It’s about baseball, it’s about love, and it’s about loyalty. And the fact they actually won the Series that year, breaking the “Curse” (something the filmmakers had no clue would happen while they were filming) was a fun piece of trivia to which any baseball fan can relate. We all want good things to happen for our team, even if it happens out of the blue.

So let’s remember today the things we like about baseball. It isn’t (or rather shouldn’t be) the hate of another team — they could end up on your team next year! It isn’t the money or the fame. It’s the spirit of the game that supersedes all that superficial nonsense. It’s looking out at the field and instead of seeing 9 men, seeing the 9 little boys that once played tee-ball and couldn’t find a baseball on the field for anything. It’s looking at 9 boys who slept with their gloves under their pillows and prayed every night that God would let them play the big leagues just once. And it’s the fans who love introducing the sport they played to their sons who might just one day grow up to don pinstripes and pitch that perfect game or hit that walk-off home run.

Go Yankees!

Touring Traditions

Gehrig4
“The Iron Horse” Lou Gehrig
Photo: New York Yankees

The Yankees have been tweeting pictures of popular players’ numbers to help gear up their fans for the start of Spring Training, beginning with Pitchers and Catchers’ Reporting Day this coming Tuesday. For a while, it was recent and even current players — Don Mattingly (#23), Curtis Granderson (#14), and Brett Gardner (#11). Now, getting into the single digits leaves us with mostly retired numbers (in descending order) — Phil Rizzuto, Roger Maris, Yogi Berra (over Bill Dickey), Mickey Mantle, Joe Torre (though not yet a retired number), Joe DiMaggio, and (today’s number) Lou Gehrig. This weekend we should see (and I’m following their pattern): Babe Ruth (#3), Derek Jeter (#2), and Billy Martin (#1).

When it comes to reverence of its organization’s history, there is no comparison to Yankee reverence or history. Most clubs recognize a handful of retired numbers on a wall in the outfield and maybe a plaque at some random spot in their stadium. But Yankees have an almost sacred respect for their history, and rightly so.

Last fall for my birthday, I was in the City and trying to figure out where to go that would really make my birthday something special. Honestly, I could only think of one place — Yankee Stadium. The team was in Baltimore on a road trip, but there are stadium tours you can take every day. They’re modified to suit whatever’s been going on in the stadium. Like on game days, they only run part of the day and are limited to a few locations to give the players and crew privacy to prepare for the game. The day I went there had been a concert the night before and the tour crew was still tearing down the stage and its complex lighting arrangements, and as the stage was right in front of Monument Park, the tour skipped it. (Side note: trying to see the Museum or Monument Park on a game day is nearly impossible unless you are at the gates the moment they open. We tried to do that too, to no avail.) But we did get to see the Museum, the Press Box, and the Clubhouse.

The funny thing was the only real Yankees fans were my mom and I that day. I have to wonder why someone would tour a sports park if you’re not a fan of baseball or the team that regularly plays there. Our tour guide was so excited to actually talk about current baseball with actual fans that we even discussed a blown call from the previous night and got a couple of updates on the game being played in Baltimore, which began as we were ending the tour, and they were already up 1-0 by the end of the 1st inning.

I realize at this point I must sound like I’m promoting the Stadium Tour, and maybe to some extent I am. But we all have days we want to remember and last forever. I’m sure every one of those names in Monument Park had one of those days playing at Polo Grounds or Yankee Stadium. I remember the look on Nick Swisher’s face the second game of the ALCS (the last game played last season at Yankee Stadium), as he looked around, smiling and taking it all in. Somehow he knew that would be his last game in Yankee Stadium as a Yankee, and it just seemed like he wanted that moment to last forever.

They won on my birthday last year, as they have for all but one year since 2000. They play in Baltimore again this year on my birthday, so let’s hope the tradition continues. And as we all know well, the Yankees love their traditions.

Go Yankees!

Go Team!

1927 Yankees
The 1927 World Championship Team

I was thinking this morning about teams. Baseball is always such a good analogy for life. Like I’ve said before, stars are made in the batter’s box, but teams are made in the field.

It reminds me of a question in one of those “Would You Rather…?” games: “Would you rather be the best player on a losing team or the worst player on the winning team?” I think most people answered that they’d rather be a star, but my answer was the winning team. Of course, I went on to explain my reasoning — if you’re only hitting .100 in the World Series, but your team wins, you still get a ring and you’re still the champions, even if you personally are horrible.

In fact, when the stars of a team flounder, it forces the other players to rise to the challenge and play for the team, rather than themselves. We got a taste of that in the Post-Season with Raul Ibanez.

So if baseball is an analogy for our lives and today’s topic is teams, who is playing on your personal team? Life is played out in various seasons, some winning streaks and some lonely days. But most of life is the in between, the mediocre attempts and the mediocre failures. This is our average. So when we are hitting average for whatever season we’re in, who around us is on our team?

In the short span of a year, friends and even family will come and go as far as influence and intimacy (call them your expendables, the ones who often get traded mid-season). The ones truly in it for the long haul (call them your contract players) will stick it out, rain or shine, win or loss; they’re there for you, with you, no matter what. And then there’s the ones who surprise you (your Ichiros, as it were), who come into your life as an expendable and end up staying for the long run.

As we Yankee fans prepare for a new season, 88 men are preparing for their new season in life, more than half will never see Major League play this year. But for this Spring, they’re a Yankee, they’re a team, and they’re our team. And as they say, “once a Yankee, always a Yankee.”

Go Yankees!

Babe Ruth & Legacies

Babe Ruth

.342 lifetime average, .690 career slugging, 1.164 career OPS, 714 home runs, 2873 hits, 2213 RBIs, 2x All-Star, 7 World Series championships (3 with the Red Sox, oddly enough), led AL in home runs 12 times, MLB’s All-Century and All-Time Teams, inducted into Cooperstown in 1936 with 95% of the votes…

There is so much to be said for George Herman Ruth Jr., affectionately referred to as “Babe”. Every time I look out across center field toward Monument Park, or even upon exiting the Great Hall meandering along Babe Ruth Plaza just outside the main gates of the Stadium, I find myself a bit sentimental about a man who is always on the Top 10 list of baseball greats. Of course, he’s favored with the Yankees and the cause of the Red Sox/Yankees rivalry, and I know he wasn’t the kind of person one might want to influence your children with his questionable moral character. Perhaps he was fortunate to be born in the days without Twitter and 24/7 news channels and paparazzi, or we might have a less-than-sentimental remembrance of his legacy.

I think for a moment that just maybe those were simpler times for the game. But I am quickly reminded that, much like today, people were willing to compromise and cheat all for a title or award or a legacy they prayed would never be tainted if they ever got caught. And yet, so many of them did. The obvious one from that era is of course the 1919 World Series and the infamous “Black Sox Scandal“.

We like to remember our heroes past with a squeaky clean immortality, but we forget that they, like us, are still flawed humans. But like someone once said, it’s not if you fall, it’s how you get up. We as a society love genuine redemption stories — fallen heroes who face their failures and rise to overcome them — Gladiator, The Shawshank Redemption, The Lord of the Rings, Spider-Man (2002), It’s a Wonderful Life, Groundhog Day, Pirates of the Caribbean (2003), and Finding Nemo, to name a few. We honor these flawed characters as heroes, not because they failed, but because they didn’t let their mistakes become who they were. Instead, they became the people (or fish or hobbits) that they should have been all along and probably dreamed about being as a kid. Rising above regret, shame, and guilt, our heroes created a niche in our hearts because of who they became by the end of the movie, not because of where they started out.

So then in honor of Babe Ruth’s 118th birthday, and in light of recent stories of a shadier nature, I ask that today we remember the good men of the sport, whose legacies we will celebrate with our children, whether redeemed part way through or clean throughout. It’s not about how you start or how many times you mess up on the way, it’s about how you finish. So finish strong…

Go Yankees!

The Face of Baseball? The Face of the Yankees.

While scanning through Twitter this morning, I saw this Tweet from the MLB Network asking who was the “Face of Major League Baseball”:

21 years in the Majors vs. 22 years old

You might, as I did, have to Google one of the names listed. It’s not like the Astros are usually seen as a threat to the Yankees, due to their former National League standing. (Side note: we do play them first at the end of April and then on our last series of the season this September in the Minute Maid Park — I’d expect a mimosa over Budweiser at that stadium.)

Now, we Yankees fans have known the obvious choice of that question for almost as long as Altuve has been alive (he will be 23 this May). But it got me thinking about the Yankee tradition of being the face of baseball since (another obvious choice) Babe Ruth.

There have some fantastic exceptions to that rule — my personal favorite being the recently departed and lifelong Cardinal Stan Musial, a man of personal character and great passion for the game. But when the greater population thinks of baseball in general, their imagination takes them to the men in pinstripes first more often than any Sox or Stars or Bird.

The Yankee dynasty was arguably established with the nearly infamous 1919 sale of Babe Ruth from the Red Sox. The Babe loved the attention he could conjure from New York’s large stage and knew how to play the crowd brilliantly, easily becoming the most well-known baseball player of his day. You could argue he was the first media darling of the game, one from which many current players need to take a lesson. By 1927, Ruth was one of six power hitters dubbed “Murders’ Row”: Earle Combs, Mark Koenig, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bob Meusel, and Tony Lazzeri. Another media favorite of the time, Lou Gehrig was celebrated for his accomplishments and a life cut too short by a crippling disease.

Next up for the face of baseball: Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio. Though he was known for liking his privacy (and his storied love life), the baseball part of him was always something to behold. In 1941, he and Red Sox great Ted Williams were competing as to who could bat over .400 for the season. DiMaggio ended up on a 56 game hitting streak, one that over 70 years later remains unbroken by anyone in the league. He led the Yankees to their 9th World Championship that year before heading off to serve his country in World War II. (And the Yankees still won the 1943 Series without him.) He was later named baseball’s “Greatest Living Player” at the baseball centennial celebration in 1969.

The face of baseball in the 50’s and early 60’s would have to be split between so many greats (and my personal favorite era of Yankees history): Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, and Roger Maris lead this generation. This was the era that cemented Yankees as the all-time world champions and brought baseball to television and thus into the hearts of every American. And they had good reason to love the Yankees: Berra, for example, would retire from playing in 1963 with 10 World Series rings and Mantle and Maris would compete for that 61st Home Run in 1961 (one more than Ruth’s record, achieved on the last day of the season by Roger Maris, who still holds the AL record).

It wasn’t until the late 1970’s when the Yankees were suddenly in the limelight again and not always for good reasons. But the face of the Yankees (and maybe all of baseball) would have to go to “Mr. October” Reggie Jackson for the Yankee comeback in 1977, the infamous “Bronx Zoo”, and World Series win. But the heart of the team would have to lie with Thurman Munson, who tragically died in a plane crash in the middle of the 1979 season.

The 1980’s slump still saw many classic Yankees in the making  like Reggie Jackson, Don Mattingly, and Dave Winfield. But none would be of any significance to rank up with the greats until the start of the 1996 season.

Joe Torre at the helm, the rise of the Core Four — Andy Pettitte on the mound, Jorge Posada catching, Mariano Rivera in the bullpen, and Derek Jeter at Shortstop — 1996 was the start of the 2nd Golden Era of baseball and a renewal of  the Yankees Dynasty.

So how does one judge one of the greats? I always say they must have three main qualities:

  1. Ability — from the batter’s box to the field, a player has to have the ability to perform, under pressure and professionally. Stellar numbers at the plate are nice, but not much if you can’t catch a ball in the field.
  2. Teamwork — there are two sides to baseball: offensively, it’s just the player with a bat, trying to hit a home run and get those big numbers; defensively, it’s about the team. And while stars are made at the plate, winning teams are made on the field. If you can’t work as part of a team, then what are you doing in a team sport?
  3. Character — with all the recurring news on drugs and philandering and just nastiness, it takes a lot for someone with character not to get caught up in the messy world around them. So I love to hear stories about how players stay out of that mess.

Stan Musial, as I stated above, fits this bill, as do many of Yankee greats listed. But only one of MLB’s nominees today has proven his quality over the past two decades and thus gets my vote.

Go Yankees!